With parliament apparently unable to agree how to leave the EU, a second referendum and a decision to stay in the EU becomes a serious possibility. Most environmentalists I know were strongly pro-remain in 2016. They know how important the EU has been in raising environmental standards and pushing action on climate change.
But there is another side of the argument. While the EU has been a progressive force for the environment, it is not perfect. And, within the UK, the period since the referendum has been energising for environmentalists. It would be a great shame to revert to the days when (arguably) British environmentalists shied away from making their case domestically, preferring to fight policy battles in Brussels. Now, faced with Brexit, we have had to fight battles here, competing with policy areas that usually have much greater political heft.
In parliamentary debates on the EU Withdrawal Bill, for instance, the environment was a major issue, something of a novelty for a piece of legislation central to the government’s programme and, indeed, the country’s future. Defra has become much more important, not only because it has a big hitter in charge, but because so much policy is being repatriated from Brussels. And we now have the power to improve marine protection through our own fisheries policies and to reverse the decline of nature by replacing the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) with a new system based (in England at least) on the principle of ‘public money for public goods’.
Positive change is possible within or without the EU
Some of the positive changes being proposed are already possible within the structures of the EU. For instance, it is not the Common Fisheries Policy per se that discriminates against small, inshore fishing boats; it is the way the UK has chosen to distribute its quota in favour of the big fleets – just five super-rich families control 29 per cent of the UK’s quota. The UK government has also previously refused to take full advantage of the scope within the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Now, basic payments are to be abolished altogether.
There has been a similar story in other areas. The UK has often been at the forefront of shaping EU environmental policy. At other times, however, out of view of our media, ministers have worked in Brussels to weaken environmental protections. Until very recently, they did so on waste policy. But now, as the government burnishes its green credentials, Defra’s Resources and Waste strategy promotes the circular economy and will help policy in England catch up with Scotland and Wales. Air pollution is also being taken more seriously: action has been forced by the EU (and ClientEarth) but Defra seems genuinely to want to find a solution.
I wish I could say the same for the Department for Transport, which seems committed to making the problem worse, but at least we know the name of the problem (Chris Grayling). I doubt one in a hundred politically informed people in the UK could name the EU transport commissioner (Violeta Bulc) or the environment commissioner (Karmenu Vella).
Shocking ignorance about how the EU works
This is not, of course, a matter of pride. One reason the UK has made such a pig’s ear of Brexit – and one of the reasons we got into it in the first place – is our shocking ignorance of the way the EU works. MPs and journalists demonstrate this every day. Worse, they seem not to care.
What concerns me here is how to ensure that UK environmental policy continues to go in a positive direction whatever happens with Brexit. For now, the UK government, or parts of it, are keen to be green, and opposition parties are pressing ministers to live up to their promises. The same can be said of the Scottish and Welsh governments.
If the UK decided to stay in the EU, green groups would have to work hard to ensure that the spotlight remained on areas of policy that have had too little domestic attention for years: farming, conservation, waste, chemicals and so on.
At the same time, we would have to engage not only with the policies emerging from the EU, but with the way the EU does policy. Reforming the EU will not be easy. It is hard to make a supranational body of 28 states and 500 million people properly accountable. But there seems to be a growing acknowledgement within the EU that it must change. If the UK was to stay, it would have to be in a reformed EU. And that reform would have to extend to the CAP, which has largely outlived its purpose. The prize we seek is nature’s recovery; we should not settle for its gradual, not-as-bad-as-it-might-be decline.
It is anyone’s guess how the crisis will play out in the coming weeks. Ensuring that the environment retains its political salience, regardless of the outcome, will be a challenge. In particular, we must keep up the pressure for an ambitious Environment Bill, as well as working to improve the farming, fishing and trade bills now going through parliament. But we should also spare some thought to the implications of reversing the Brexit decision, an outcome that seems increasingly thinkable, even if it is not yet likely.